Asian dwarf elephant, Palaeoloxodon naumanni (1845)

Phylum : Chordata
Class : Mammalia
Order : Proboscidae
Family : Elephantidae
Genus : Palaeoloxodon
Species : P. naumanni

  • Pleistocene (500 000 - 15 000 years)
  • 2 m high and 1 500 kg (size)
  • India, China and Japan (map)

Palaeoloxodon naumanni is closely related to the modern Asian Elephant, Elephas maximus. Similar to mammoths P. naumanni had a subcutaneous fat layer and long fur as an adaption to a cold environment. The species had a pair of long twisted tusks and a bulge on the head. These tusks grew more than 2.4 m in length, 20 cm in diameter. It was a little smaller than Asian elephants averaging 2.5 metres to 3 metres. It lived in forest which mixed subarctic conifers and cool-temperate deciduous trees. The ancestor of Palaeoloxodon naumanni moved from the Eurasian continent to Japan via land bridge; it subsequently evolved independently after the land bridge was covered by sea and spread throughout Japan. Palaeoloxodon naumanni was hunted by the inhabitants of the time. Some fossils were found around Lake Nojiri (Nagano, Japan) together with a lot of stone tools or bone tools.

Dwarf elephant by Zdenek Burian
'Tusk suggests greener, wetter Arabian Desert in the past' - University of Oxford

A joint international research team led by the University of Oxford, in collaboration with the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA), has discovered a giant tusk in the Arabian Desert.

The two pieces of tusk, which together measure six feet (2.25m) in length, are thought to have belonged to a now extinct genus known as Palaeoloxodon (the so-called ‘straight-tusked’ elephants).

An elephant’s carpal bone located five metres away from the pieces of tusk was also recovered from the same sand layer at an excavation site in the Nefud Desert. The sand layer was dated to around 325,000 years before the present day in recently published work by a Swiss team (Rosenberg et al in 2013), and the Oxford team says this suggests that the elephant remains found there are also about that age.

The research team also discovered other animal remains in the same sand layer, including a big cat, thought to be a now-extinct jaguar, and the remains of a member of the horse family, as well as oryx – antelope species which are still native to the Arabian Peninsula today.

Project leader Professor Mike Petraglia, from the School of Archaeology at the University of Oxford, said: 'The discovery of the elephant tusk is significant in demonstrating just how much the climate could have changed in the Arabian Desert. Elephants would need huge quantities of roots, grasses, fruit and bark to survive and they would have consumed plenty of water too.

'Although the sand dunes in the Nefud Desert carry on for miles in the present day, indeed across an area the size of England, around 325,000 years ago it seems the landscape would have been very different.’

The findings were revealed at the Green Arabia conference at Oxford University, at which scientists are examining the latest evidence on how early humans and animals are likely to have been affected by past climate change in the Arabian Peninsula.